My third book for Barrington Stoke’s super-readable Little Gems series is Elisabeth and the Box of Colours. Like the other two books I have written for Barrington Stoke, it is inspired by a real-life character from history – in this case, the French artist Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, who was born in Paris in 1755.
Élisabeth loved drawing from a very early age: she described herself as having ‘an inborn passion for art’. She went away to a convent boarding school aged 6, and while there, she often found herself in trouble for drawing. In her memoirs, she wrote:
During that time I scrawled on everything at all seasons; my copy-books, and even my schoolmates’, I decorated with marginal drawings of heads, some full-face, others in profile; on the walls of the dormitory I drew faces and landscapes with coloured chalks. So it may easily be imagined how often I was condemned to bread and water. I made use of my leisure moments outdoors in tracing any figures on the ground that happened to come into my head.
Her father, Louis Vigée, was an artist and encouraged Élisabeth’s love of drawing. Seeing a drawing she had made at the age of only seven or eight years old, he reportedly exclaimed: ‘You will be a painter, child, if ever there was one!’
My story takes particular inspiration from Élisabeth’s childhood, including her close relationship with her father. I have made a few changes to Élisabeth’s real story: in my version, Louis dies when Élisabeth is away at school, whereas in real life, he died around a year after she left school, when she was 12 years old. However, just like in my story, her sadness and grief affected her very deeply, leaving her unable to draw for a while. ‘So heartbroken was I that it was long before I felt able to take to my crayons again’ she wrote later. But after a little time, she returned to making art, as a way to help herself cope with her ‘sad thoughts’.
With help and encouragement from her father’s friends, Élisabeth continued to pursue a career as an artist. She set up her own studio by the age of 15, by which time she was painting portraits professionally. Although she was young and had no formal training, she quickly became very successful. She painted many of the most important people in Paris, and even became one of the very few female members of the French Royal Academy.
In 1778, she was invited to the Palace of Versailles to paint Queen Marie Antoinette. She soon became one of the queen’s favourite painters, as well as her friend. In total, she painted over 30 portraits of the queen, including many of the images of her that are the most familiar and recognisable to us today. Among these were an image of Marie Antoinette in a straw hat and a plain white muslin dress (1783) – which has become probably the most famous image of the French queen. At the time, the portrait was considered highly controversial because of the informal, simple style in which the queen was dressed: she was criticised for appearing in a public portait ‘wearing a chambermaid’s dust cloth’ and even accused of mocking the dignity of the French throne.
Another of Élisabeth’s most famous paintings of the queen was Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787) which showed the queen at home at the Palace of Versailles surrounded by her children. The painting was intended to help improve the queen’s image, by making her seem more relatable to ordinary people, and show her in a sympathetic light.
But in spite of such efforts, just two years later, Queen Marie Antoinette and the rest of the royal family were arrested during the French Revolution. Élisabeth and her daughter Julie escaped from Paris, and travelled around Europe, living in Italy, Russia and Germany. Élisabeth continued to work as a portrait artist, painting many of Europe’s most important people, as well as painting landscapes and history scenes. Today, her work can be found in art galleries and museums all over the world.
Towards the end of her life, Élisabeth returned to France, and when she was in her 80s she published her memoirs (Souveniers). It was the intriguing and vivid recollections from her childhood that are included in the first part of these memoirs which helped to inform my story, Elisabeth and the Box of Colours. Here’s a little more about my version of Élisabeth’s story, which has been gorgeously illustrated by Rebecca Cobb.
Elisabeth loves to paint, just like her papa. She spends hours making her own pictures of everything she sees – and the more colourful, the better!
But when she goes away to school, she finds herself in a world of grey: grey buildings, grey uniforms, grey rooms. She misses Papa and all the colours of home. And one winter morning, she gets some terrible news that makes her days darker than ever before. Will Elisabeth be able to find the colour and joy in her life again?
‘A small, elegant triumph’ – The Times, Children’s Book of the Week
‘Beautifully told in spare, resonant words… A transporting little tale’ – The Guardian
‘Absolutely gorgeous. Pure, wondrous joy … What an inspiring gem of a book’ – author Liz Hyder
A ‘modern-day Madeline… offering hope and encouragment’ – The Times, Ten Brilliant New Children’s Books to Enjoy on World Book Day
Buy it now from Waterstones, Bookshop.org.uk or Amazon
Find out more about the real stories that helped to inspire my other books for the Little Gems series – Rose’s Dress of Dreams and Sophie Takes to the Sky
Check out my list of more brilliant children’s books about art and artists